The Trump administration was merely minutes old when all references to climate change disappeared from the White House website. Later that day, the National Park Service Twitter account was briefly shutdown because the new president was miffed about a retweet of side-by-side aerial photographs that clearly showed the crowd at former President Obama’s 2009 inauguration was larger than the crowd at President Trump’s.
Trump was so peeved, he personally ordered acting Park Service director Michael Reynolds in a phone call to come up with additional photographs that would prove the media “had lied in reporting the attendance had been no better than average,” the Washington Post reported. Reynolds sent more photos to the White House. But they did not show larger crowds.
So began an unprecedented rebellion inside government agencies that quickly transformed from a duel about presidential popularity into the fate of the government’s work on climate change.
By the end of Week One, public affairs officials in agencies where climate scientists work had received directives aimed at silencing them—at least temporarily. The Environmental Protection Agency was ordered, Reuters reported, to take down its climate change page from its website—although that order was shelved in the backlash that followed. Grants and contracts at EPA were also frozen, although there are reports that that edict may also be rescinded.
“Taken together, what we’ve seen over the first five days is completely unprecedented,” says Peter Gleick, a water scientist and co-founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. “I have seen nothing like it in my lifetime and I’ve been around for a while.”
The Trump administration is hardly the first new executive branch to attempt to influence scientific research that contradicts political party orthodoxy. Under President George W. Bush, Interior Department officials sometimes overruled agency scientists working on endangered species issues. The Obama administration was accused by scientists of underreporting damage from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and at times required public-relations chaperones when scientists talked to the press.
But the speed and ferocity with which controls on science appeared in the opening days of the Trump administration set off the fury on Twitter and inspired scientists from Maine to California to join a scientists’ march on Washington.
More than a dozen “rogue” unofficial Twitter accounts launched to voice resistance to the orders. Some claimed to be tweeting on behalf of unidentified federal scientists at the Park Service, NASA, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments—although no one knows for sure the identities of the people posting the tweets.
Scientists are not known for waging political protest en masse. But they have become so alarmed by what has played out, they are taking a page from the Women’s March in Washington that drew an estimated 470,000 protesters, with protests in at least 80 other countries the day after Trump was sworn into office.
“The situation seems more uncertain than ever,” says Bethany Wiggin, a University of Pennsylvania humanities professor who directs the Penn Library Data Refuge and has been leading the effort to collect and preserve federal climate and environmental data.
“We hear there is a gag order and then there is a claim that the gag order has been revoked, and then it is denied that it was ever made. Everything seems incredibly in flux,” Wiggin says. “What seems certain is that we have an anti-science administration and an anti-factual and anti-research administration that does not understand what it needs to do.”
David Doniger, director of climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says he’s less concerned about the Twitter war than efforts to expunge climate information from government websites.
“The most dramatic thing is the turn from full acceptance of climate science to this calculated waffling from all the Cabinet nominees who testified on the Hill,” he says. “They are all saying, ‘the climate is changing, we just don’t know whether it is human influence or how much. That still amounts to climate denial.”
Whether intended or not at the start-up of the Trump administration, the question of how the president handles climate change has now become an urgent question to settle. Doniger says the point isn’t that EPA contracts were frozen, it’s what happens next: “What will be more telling is how they change what’s contracted for and what tasks the agency is going to be allowed to do and not be allowed to do.”
Below are three takeaways from the tumultuous first week:
Muzzling Agencies Inspires a Scientists’ March on Washington
Doubters of science in general date to Galileo. Climate scientists have been an outspoken voice for as long as the government has been studying climate science.
But instructions to limit communications to the public that were passed on to public affairs officials at the EPA, Agriculture Department, and, according to the Washington Post, the National Institutes of Health, have fed fears that the Trump administration will attempt to filter climate science through a political lens.
“Attacks on climate change are nothing new,” Gleick says. “They have always come from the fringe, peripheral groups and individuals. Now it looks as though marginal groups have control of the steering wheel.”
Meanwhile, the march, which began as a suggestion on Facebook, has blossomed into a full-force organizational effort, with a web page and activists working to set it up. On February 1, organizers announced that the march will take place on April 22, coinciding with Earth Day. As of February 1, the March for Science Twitter account has 303,000 followers.
“This has just developed in the last 48 to 72 hours. It’s really snowballing,” says Jacquelyn Gill, one of the march organizers and a University of Maine paleoecologist who studies how extinction affects biodiversity. “What prompted this is the idea that climate science in particular will be targeted. It’s not about cost-cutting. The entire United States science and medical research budget is less than two percent of the federal budget. This is clearly agenda driven.”
The Park Service Became the Unlikely Hero of the ‘Rebellion’
The Park Service is one of the least controversial and most popular federal agencies because its primary task is to take care of the nation’s parks. But in the wake of the flap about the size of the inauguration crowd, a former Park Service employee at the Badlands National Park in South Dakota defied President Trump—setting off a broader resistance that quickly spread to other federal agencies.
The Badlands former employee, who still had access to the Park Service’s official Twitter account, posted tweets about rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. One of three posts said: “Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. #climate.”
By the time those posts were deleted on January 24, the Badlands Twitter account had some 60,000 new followers.
Then, a new account was born—AltUSNatParkService—which used the Park Service logo and identified itself as the “Unofficial #Resistance team of U.S. National Park Service.” As of Friday morning, it had 1.24 million followers.
There are now more than a dozen alt-agency Twitter accounts, all posting a combination of climate science facts and taunts at Trump. Although these rogue accounts claim to represent agency employees, it is impossible to confirm who set the accounts up and is actively tweeting.
A Park Service employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired told National Geographic that agency workers are concerned that there will be reprisals from the administration, which has been embarrassed by the public show of resistance to the commander in chief—even though it is impossible to determine if the alt-sites are operated by actual government employees or internet trolls. But, the employee said, one tweet in particular posted on the alt-Park Service account suggests the account may indeed be operated by at least one rebellious Park Service employee because it refers to the White House by its official name, President’s Park, because the residence is part of the national park system—a tidbit not widely known outside the Park Service.
“Reports of an unidentified orange haired mammal close to President’s Park,” the tweet says. “Possibly invasive species. DC animal services have been notified.”
A Glimmer of Hope?
It’s still early and missteps are not uncommon as new administrations get up and running. The contract freeze at the EPA may, in the end, turn out to be “a tempest in a teapot,” Doniger says. Although signals so far have put the scientific community on red alert, it may be too early to reach any conclusion other than the administration’s start-up is in disarray.
Despite less-than-compelling testimony about climate change from both Rex Tillerson and Scott Pruitt, Trump’s picks to lead the State Department and EPA, a glimmer of hope shone through that at least one of the newcomers understands what’s at stake. Billionaire banker Wilbur Ross, the administration’s nominee to head the Commerce Department, outlined his views in a letter to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat whose home state of Florida is one of the most vulnerable places to sea-level rise on Earth.
While Ross, who lives part of the year in Palm Beach County, Florida, echoed his fellow Cabinet colleagues in demurring on the cause of climate change, he agreed to focus on addressing the impacts. “Science should be left to the scientists,” Ross said.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on February 1 to include the March for Science's date and to update the number of Twitter followers the march has accrued.